Teheran turns to diplomacy amid regional tension

Mr Mohammad Javad Zarif will leave today for several visits.
Mr Mohammad Javad Zarif will leave today for several visits.

TEHERAN • Iran's Foreign Minister will embark on a diplomatic tour to try to salvage the nuclear deal amid high tensions following the United States' withdrawal and global fears over reports of unprecedented clashes with Israel in Syria.

The 2015 agreement requires Iran to freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

Despite strong protests and last-minute lobbying by his European partners, US President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that Washington would withdraw from the historic accord negotiated between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the US - plus Germany.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will leave late today for visits to Beijing, Moscow and Brussels, a spokesman said yesterday, holding meetings with all five of the remaining parties to the nuclear deal.

Iran also appeared determined not to be drawn into a wider regional conflict with Israel during the sensitive negotiations.

This is despite Israel's claims that it struck dozens of Iranian targets inside Syria early on Thursday as part of "Operation House of Cards".

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to "throw the Iranians out" of his country.

Israel said the strikes were in response to a missile volley fired from southern Syria by Iran's Al-Quds force, that struck the occupied Golan Heights without causing casualties.

But Iran flatly denied the Israeli version of events yesterday, saying Israel's attacks were carried out on false "pretexts".

Iran must tread a delicate line as it seeks to show resolve against Mr Trump and the Israeli strikes without alienating the European partners it needs to salvage something from the nuclear deal.

Mr Zarif will hold high-pressure talks with the other parties to the deal, first in Beijing and Moscow, and then with his counterparts from Britain, France and Germany in Brussels on Tuesday.

All five have condemned Mr Trump's move to walk out of the deal and reimpose crippling sanctions, but European companies in particular will be highly vulnerable to economic pressure from Washington.

France and its European allies plan to submit proposals to the European Commission that are designed to strengthen Europe's capacity to defend its economic interests, the French Finance Minister said yesterday.

"There is a realisation among all European states that we cannot keep going in the direction we are headed today whereby we submit to American decisions," Mr Bruno Le Maire told reporters when asked about Europe's response to US sanctions against Iran.

Europe needed to toughen rules dating back to 1996, he said, adding: "France, together with other European partners, hopes to present proposals to the European Commission which go in this sense."

Iran has said it will stay in the deal only if the remaining signatories can provide solid guarantees that its trade benefits will continue in spite of renewed US sanctions.

Meanwhile, US officials have told Agence France-Presse that the White House wants intrusive inspections of Iran's nuclear sites to continue despite Mr Trump's withdrawal from the landmark accord.

Known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal forces Iran to open any site to inspectors within 24 days at most and introduced 24-hour remote surveillance at some sites.

Supporters of the Obama-era accord argue it provided "the world's most robust" monitoring regime, allowing access to the Islamic Republic's most sensitive nuclear sites.

The White House is demanding the existing inspection regime, however imperfect, continue under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2018, with the headline 'Teheran turns to diplomacy amid regional tension'. Print Edition | Subscribe